Saturday, September 16, 2006

A New Perspective on Pastoral Care

***Update*** Something went a little screwy when I copied text from Word to Blogger, I think I have it fixed now, but some of the punctuation may be missing.

Occasionally, I like to write about some of the things I have learned in class, and that is the case with this post. I am enjoying my class on pastoral care, so I decided I would write on that for this post.

For those of my readers who are or have been pastors, this may not be a "new perspective," but it was for me. One of the classes I am taking this year is "The Ministry of Pastoral Care." Before starting the class, I admit that I thought of pastoral care as something that mostly happens one-on-one. I thought I would be learning about dealing with birth, marriage, divorce, death and dying. And all of those things will be a part of the class. But, in a congregational setting, ministers must not only do what they can to promote the health of each individual member; they must also protect and promote the health of the congregation as a whole. We are currently reading two books that begin by discussing the health of the congregation.

The first book is Cultivating Wholeness by Margaret Kornfeld. One of the concepts introduced in our reading so far is the role of the pastor in helping to create what she calls "real community" in a church. Churches are frequently referred to as communities of faith.” A community may be thought of as a group of individuals, and, just like an individual, a community can be either spiritually and emotionally healthy or unhealthy. Kornfeld uses the term real community” to describe a community that is healthy. In a real community, a person feels free to be who he or she is; a person does not have to change or pretend to be someone they are not to be accepted by a real community. Real communities are safe” places to be. Real communities allow individual members to disagree with each other and question the leadership of the community without risking their membership in the community. When these characteristics are considered, it becomes easy to see why real communities are actually more prone to conflict. This should actually be considered healthy, however, because in any community situation, conflict is inevitable. The characteristics of a real community allow it to deal with conflict in a healthy way; they are able to, as Kornfeld puts it, claim their conflict” and potentially resolve them before anger reaches a level that harms the community as whole.

Kornfeld uses the term “pseudo community” to describe a community that is unhealthy. Pseudo communities may appear to be real communities, but appearances can be deceiving. There is little room for individual identity in a pseudo community because they tend to emphasize a group identity. The differences of the individual members are not valued, so individual members feel they must conform to the identity of the group and follow the leadership no matter what. Disagreement is discouraged which causes a build up of anger allowing the smallest disagreement to rapidly escalate into a war within the group. Pseudo communities are not safe places to be.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul described Christian community as the “body of Christ,” and the concept of real community fits nicely with PaulĂ‚’s description. A real community values the differences of its members and understands that each of us has different gifts. In addition, only a real community follows Jesus' command that we “love our neighbor.” The type of love Jesus was describing is not conditional; it is not a love that is available only if one is willing to conform.

The second book is Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals by Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley. Anderson and Foley discuss the impact that narratives and rituals have on our lives, our worship and the practice of pastoral care. All three of these categories are at their best when they are able to achieve the proper balance between the divine story and the human story. As human beings, we yearn not only to find our place in the divine narrative, but we also want to discover where God is present in our story. Anderson and Foley believe that worship and the practice of pastoral care do not have that balance. Ironically, they believe they are out of balance on different sides of the narrative spectrum. As Christians, we need to do a better job of integrating the human story into our worship and integrating the divine story into pastoral care.

There are many Christians who find worship to be boring and irrelevant. I believe Anderson and Foley are correct when they assert that one of the reasons for this is the fact that many churches have taken the human story out of worship. When a member of a congregation complains that a worship service is boring, he may be told that he is just being selfish and that the worship service is not about him; it is about God. In other words, worship is only about the divine story. But, what if the real problem is that the worship service is not allowing God's story to connect with the worshiper's story ? Would that not result in an image of God in which he can only be found in the church building and not in the daily life of a believer? When we attend a movie, we most often become the most interested in the character we can identify with because their story somehow intersects with ours; we see some part of our story in their story. Consequently, the solution to boring worship may not necessarily be a flashy service with upbeat music and high tech displays. Rather, the key to genuine worship is designing a service that illustrates how God is a part of our lives outside of the church and show where God's story is present in our story. If we are able to do that, our worship, whatever style it may be, will be more genuine.

On the other side of the coin, those entrusted with the ministry of pastoral care may have erred the other way: they have emphasized the human story at the expense of the divine story. One of the reasons for this is the tendency for counselors to draw from psychological theories and practices rather than the Christian story. When we begin to draw from the Christian story, we have to acknowledge the role of God as a co-author, and in doing so, identify where the divine story intersects with the human story. These acknowledgments allow us to open the door to the practice of communal religious rituals in the ministry of pastoral care. The result is that we are able to not only re-connect an individual's story to the divine story, but we are also able to reconnect the individual's story with the story of the community of faith.

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